A Difficult Beauty

It seems to me that bad things come easily. Whether it is ugliness, anger, or every kind of darkness, we not only see such things, but seem  “bound” to see them. Why are we “hard-wired” for such observations?

The answer is really quite simple: we are hard-wired to see things that are potentially dangerous, and for obvious reasons. When my son was in his early years, his complete joy and wonder at things made him a “live-wire.” If you were the parent in charge of his safety, you had to keep your eye on him every moment. In that process, we developed some short-hand shouts to wake him up and alert him to danger. The most common one that I remember was, “Bad road!” The shout would stop him in his tracks. We were doing for him what his own brain was learning to do rather slowly.

In the depths of the human brain, there resides an area geared for danger. Properly known as the “Limbic Cortex,” it is nicknamed the “Lizard Brain” by many, in that it is pretty much all the brain that a lizard has. Its task is primitive and simple: it is in charge of “fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and fornication” (at least that’s how it’s tagged in one popular description). If you think about the things that provoke fight, flight, fear, etc., they consist mostly of danger. With no warnings of danger, our survival in this world would likely be quite short.

Another aspect of danger is that it is often less than beautiful – and therein lies a problem. We are necessarily hard-wired for danger. Our brain doesn’t ask us whether we want to notice bad things. It does the noticing and tells us about them, whether we want to know it or not.

Beauty, on the other hand, requires more intentionality and effort – you have to want it.

In Biblical terms, we can say that when it comes to beauty – you have to ask, to seek, and to knock. The recognition of beauty and its place in our life requires action. We cannot passively wait for beauty to seek us out.

Our hard-wiring also explains why the world of messaging that permeates our day is generally negative. As messaging goes, fight, flight, and fear are more effective. A warning gets our attention whether we want it or not. Even what passes for beauty in our messaging is often rooted in the lizard brain’s penchant for sex.

We have an elderly cat in our home. The better part of her day is spent sleeping. Nonetheless, there is one irresistible thing in her life (at present, not even food moves her very much). What she finds enthralling is movement. If the sunlight reflects off my watch, casting a small bit of light on the wall, she can become quite active, following its every movement (same thing can be achieved with a laser pointer). She’s hardwired to chase it. I’ve often imagined that cat advertisers would put their messaging into laser dots and run them past their intended audience. That’s pretty much how human advertising works – but our laser dots are fight, flight, fear, and sex.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the danger signals, amplified and multiplied by a greedy media. Even apart from the media, the day can be dominated by our remembered and imagined fears. Darkness refuses to go unnoticed.

Those who manufacture the buzz that hovers in our minds prefer us as lizards. We are, after all, nothing to them apart from our actions as consumers. Lizards are the most manageable form for consumers: there is no reasoning, no irony, no heroics or self-denial. It is life in a sub-human form. It is not hard for the media managers to maintain the negative buzz of our minds. It is the default position of a significant portion of the brain.

However, we are human beings, not lizards. The hymns of the Church affectionately dub us “rational sheep” (which is a negation of the notion of sheep as passive followers and victims). Nonetheless, our “rationality” (the ability to be more than a lizard) requires intentionality and effort. We are invited to become those-who-act. If we are to be “like God,” we must live intentionally: ask, seek, knock.

Beauty surrounds us and awaits our attention. However, attending to beauty is difficult. It calls to something possible within us: possible, but not automatic. And so, the priest in the Liturgy bids us to “lift up your hearts.” It is a phrase that echoes St. Paul’s admonition, “Set your affections on things above, not on things of the earth.” We do not have a “lizard brain” for the beautiful. We have the heart, and its attention can be directed and nurtured. Learning to “dwell in the heart” also requires us to learn how to “turn down” the noise of the lizard within. My experience through the years is that both (the noetic awareness of the heart and the lizard awareness of the dark and dangerous) grow and increase with feeding. I note, as well, that most of us are starved for beauty.

In the words of St. Paul:

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

35 comments:

  1. To retrain the Heart into it’s essential purpose, to desire God in all, through all and above all. This is the ascesis of continual repentance.

    Thank you Fr Stephen
    Much appreciated on a cold winters morning here in the true Deep South 🙂

  2. Yes, Father, beauty, truth, goodness require intentionality, effort to see and to abide in. You mentioned the lowly lizard. My mind went to “lounge lizards” one sees at slot machines in casinos…usually older folks, cigarette drooping from the mouth, drink at hand and benumbed look on the face as the next button is pushed…at least the one-armed bandits required some effort!
    Anyway, these modern lizards are a long ways from the glitzy media commercials of beautiful young people having the time of their life…all smiles, fun and quite carefree. Appreciation of beauty does require effort, as you note. I liked being in the mountains as a child but it was only years later that I really beheld their beauty as it found its way from my eyes to my heart. As one can sit in the loving presence of a lifelong spouse, without words, so I can sit silently in beauty’s presence, not benumbed but bedewed as it but reflects Beauty Itself.

  3. Very true, Dean
    I am most fortunate to live on a plot of land with 8 majestic New Zealand Beech trees. Walking amongst them is walking in The Temple. It often stops me in my tracks. Beauty

  4. Eric,
    I was thinking about this the other day while I was writing this post. Preaching fear works for a few…but it nurtures a kind of impairment in the soul. The soul requires beauty in order to heal. It has been my practice through the years, for those who were new in the faith (and the rest of us), to recommend frequent reading of the gospel of St. John. There is a beauty there that soothes the soul. All of the gospels with do the same – but St. John’s in particular.

  5. My absolute favorite: Phil. 4:8. Just rereading the passage calms and “lifts up” my heart! I picture heaven as the contemplation of the lovely, the pure, the noble, the just . . .

    I was thinking today about the horrific gun violence so prevalent in our land. Availability of guns, background checks — all these political action items don’t adequately address what’s going on. The marinating of young, impressionable minds in the cesspool of the internet is an ongoing disaster especially for the few young men who are spiritually and emotionally diseased or even just vulnerable. Yes, there is much that is interesting, informative and beautiful that can be accessed through the internet but hideously, the sick, the gross, the soul-deforming and the soul-crushing, Evil itself, is infinitely available.

  6. I have always been impressed externally by the beauty in the Church from the moment I first entered one 36 years ago. But actually being part of the beauty and having it in me is a different thing. But to actually be part of the beauty required humility, at least a little. I began to find it in Confession and actually praying the Jesus Prayer. Even then it is the hem of the garment. The fullness of Beauty escapes me.

    What is frustrating is not being able to communicate the nature and reality of the beauty I have experienced. No words seem adequate and/or they are misinterpreted even by me.

  7. Ah, St John – our patron here down under and what a patron as I continually remind my flock.
    Years ago my spiritual director asked me which of the gospels I most revered, I replied St Matthew. Her response that for her it was John. It took years for me to see, but perhaps the Oceans might at first sight seem forbidding for swimming

    As to the gravitational challenges – like all creatures upside down, it makes us a little slow, but perhaps that’s no bad thing. We’re also a little bit taller than in the North 😉

  8. Father,
    Your post reminded me of the following extract from Olivier Clément’s commentary on the Our Father:
    “There is also a question of culture.  We need music, poems, novels, songs and any art that has the potential to be popular art and which awakens the power within our hearts.
    At times, in the metro in Paris, a song from the high plains of South America catches my attention as it follows the meandering boundary between death and love, between revolt and celebration.
    There is also the great love-story of Arabic literature: that of Majnûn and Laylâ.  Majnûn, the madman loves Laylâ – night.  Laylâ loves Majnûn but, without revealing her secret, in the shape of gazelle, she disappears into the desert.  Henceforth Majnûn is destined to wander . . . and sing.  We need Majnûn’s song.  We need a kind of beauty that is not possessive, as is often the case in our day, but precisely one of dis-possession and perhaps of communion, “the beauty which creates communion,” as the Areopagite says.
    St John Climacus refers to “those profane melodies that bear us up to inner joy, divine love and blessed tears.” The secret genius of Christianity is “philokalian.”  “Philokalia” means “love of beauty.” This beauty  must not be limited of the liturgy or ascesis but should also radiate throughout our culture.”

    To me the loss of beauty is one of the biggest tragedies of the collapse of Western culture.

  9. A few years ago, a video of Joshua Bell busking in a busy subway station went viral. It is worth a watch: adults hurry past him (one of the greatest violinists playing some of the most beautiful music ever written on a Stradivarius) often not even noticing while small children would stop and stare, needing to be dragged from the spot by their parents. The lizard brain is that of the fallen man. “…and He set a little child in their midst and said…”

  10. Thankyou for your insightful article Father.
    I guess the phrase “You become what you eat” can also be true in the spiritual sense. If what we consume or receive is Holy and Beautiful, then we become holy and beautiful.

  11. Mario,
    That would seem to be the point of St. Paul’s admonition (if there is any beauty, etc.). It is also the difference between living intentionally and living passively.

  12. Hi Fr Stephen,
    I’m a recent convert to Orthodoxy. I have 2 friends l/coworkers that are very openly anti-Christian. My observation is that they are mostly anti fear, judgement, hypocrisy, and all of the other ugly things that we do sometimes. I fell in love with Orthodoxy because it affirms that God is good and loves us and doesn’t delight in torturing us. It seems that any door to conversation on the topic with my friends is closed for the time being, but I have overheard them talking about me and my beliefs and they’re negative view of all of it. I feel hurt, and know that they’re also hurting, longing for the beautiful to be true, but all they can see is the ugly. I’m praying for help and for them, and trying to repent, but thought maybe you might have a word to offer, as I have previously benefited from your talks about “the god you don’t believe in”. Please pray for me.

  13. If only everyone would seek the beauty of Christ with all their minds, hearts and souls then there would truly be Peace on Earth! Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

  14. Max,

    I appreciate your story about Joshua Bell. In fact I feel like it points to a key to understanding all this…

    –Beauty hasn’t disappeared, despite all our best efforts to neglect and destroy it.
    –People to appreciate the beauty are there too, perhaps more starved than ever for it.

    I’m tempted to think that the beauty is hidden. “For those with eyes to view, let them see…” The children still have those eyes. They have not yet completed their slave training. And of course the odd adult has slipped the noose. I’m not sure that God intentionally hides it, but there at least does seem to be a limit to which He will reveal and declare it. This is also why “narrow is the gate which leads to life…”

    I suspect the first step to being able to see beauty once again is to accept that we’re blind – and to ask for help.

  15. Jamie, be kind and patient. Long-suffering is a habit that is difficult, but necessary to practice in these situation. Above all, be kind and careful with their lives.

  16. Beauty has disappeared only in cities. It is a fifty mike round trip from my home to my parish but I am surrounded by beauty in both places and not much in between. I can walk out on my porch and see nothing but trees, wheat fields ripening and our own little garden and green grass lots of birds from hawks to quail to owls. A pair of cardinals return every year to nest in our trees.

    Of course we also have lots of mosquitoes but all they do is remind me to repent. Indeed that is where I have experience the most beauty after pawing through all the assorted junk in my soul, by His Grace, Christ is there closer than hands and feet. But having to face sll that junk, most of which I put there, is difficult.

  17. Michael,
    Beauty is often diminished in some urban settings – but it is almost possible to say that we are ever anywhere devoid of beauty. Indeed, cities are filled with people, and the souls of people have a unique beauty (just to name a particular example). I am no fan of American urban landscapes – but it is important that we learn to see what remains of beauty anywhere we are.

  18. Father, I will not go into the details of why I made my observation. I will try to observe your admonition in hopes of overcoming through God’s Grace.

  19. I find that, if I don’t read Shakespeare regularly, my day goes off-kilter. I find myself praying to God while I am reading. It is a way to offer the poetic beauty back to Him.

  20. Matthew,
    Perhaps…but it is helpful if a commenter does not assume to much on the part of other readers (or myself). As to the passage in Isaiah, I think it has traditionally been seen as referring to Christ in His suffering and crucifixion. It takes very deep discernment, indeed, to see beauty in such circumstances.

  21. Mary, while I get what you mean there are certain Shakespearean writing that I have to be careful with, particularly Macbeth because it expresses the darkness of the soul so well. Faulkner did a superb job redeeming one of those sections.
    As did Father Stephen in his recent post on the foolishness of God and the saints.

  22. Fr Stephen
    Further to the blood rushing to our heads down here, I can’t help but note how utterly devoid of holding tradition the culture is here. It’s very disembodied.

    And housing regulations are instructive
    They’re entirely about Safety. You can build a ghastly box in the midst of natural beauty of a high order, think Yosemite, (we also have geysers), and no one bats an eyelid. When we moved into the church house, people were bemused when we repainted. “What’s wrong with the usual greys and browns?”

    The human soul needs to be literally’in-formed’ by beauty, the eye lifted up to be full of light. I’m troubled by the downcast souls.

    On another matter but related, I recently heard a suggestive explanation of ‘and they saw they were naked’. Our parents were filled with awe in Creation – but when they ate of the apple suggesting control of that beneath them, they looked down for the first time. ‘Yikes!! We have no clothes on!’

    Money also does this
    We might be filled with a glorious vision, but when someone asks about the finances, all the lights go out. Jesus puts the injunction about the eye immediately before the ‘God and Manmon’ discourse

    Blessings on y’all 🙂

  23. Father,
    The image you selected (St George) reminds me of an icon in my parish temple with similar icons, including one with St Demetrius. Indeed I find it challenging to venerate these particular icons. However, I do not spurn them. I’m not so ideological. Furthermore, I can relate to and appreciate the work of slaying the dragon (passions) within.
    Nevertheless, American media uses such imagery to ill effects, fueling self-righteousness. This might be why I find it challenging to venerate these icons in such an ideological environment. For these reasons, I sincerely appreciate your thoughts on this topic because we are indeed starved for beauty, and for St Paul’s quote at the end of your article. May God grant that I attend to His beauty in His creation (heaven and earth).

    Father, I ask for your prayers.

  24. Dee,
    I well understand. I found it interesting some years back, when visiting in the Holy Land, that the homes of Orthodox Christians (and perhaps others), are marked particularly by small ceramic icons of St. George on the doorway. It is a bold statement on the one hand: “An Orthodox Christian lives here.” As well as a prayer: “St. George protect us.” They have lived, surrounded by so many dragons for so many centuries, often with little to no protection from “man.”

    My thoughts on choosing St. George for this blog post was about slaying the dragon – the “lizard” – with whom we have to contend day in and day out.

    An easy prayer before such an icon is: “St. George, save me from the dark thoughts of the dragon.”

  25. Dear Father,
    Thank you for your reflections to my comment. Good words for the heart. I visited the Holy Land many many years ago (as a tour guide–believe it or not). But I didn’t go as a Christian and wouldn’t have noticed the icons you described. I can certainly understand their reasoning and decision to put a St George icon on their doorway. With the prayers of St George, may the Lord protect them!

    And indeed it is a good icon to draw our attention to our own thoughts, reminding us and helping us in our prayers to slay the lizard brain (often hidden) in our minds!!

    Thank you, Father.

  26. Dee, thank you for sharing. I attend St. George in Wichita. Somehow I have never related to him as much as I do others. The icons on my icon wall are all of that nature except for Bishop Raphael of Brooklyn. There is a tight link between my parish and St. Raphael and I feel quite close to him.
    If I am not mistaken, several years ago Met. Philip put a moratorium on naming parishes St. George. There is a deep devotion in the Lebanese community. Mostly unspoken here. It is deep and long standing and a source of great strength.

  27. Michael, Re; Shakespeare.

    I completely understand. I never want to read “Titus Andronicus” again if I can possibly help it.
    Although pondering Lady Macbeth may make for good Lenten reading…🤔

  28. Dee

    St Gabriel Urgebatze the Georgian fool for Christ ( https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2017/11/saint-gabriel-confessor-and-fool-for.html) suggested the following way to pray to St George (and any Saint):

    First make your cross in the name of the Holy Trinity.
    Then say the prayer of the Virgin, “ Theotokos Virgin, rejoice, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with You. Blessed are You among women, and blessed is the fruit of Your womb, for You have borne the Savior of our souls.”
    Then invoke the Saint 3 times:
    “Saint George the Great Martyr, pray to God for us !”.
    And then ask for what you want, but this should be for the benefit of the soul. That is what you are asking for.

  29. Dear Nikolaos,
    Thank you for your patience and response. Indeed I have I lot to learn from our Saints. I appreciate the link to St Gabriel‘s life story. I need to meditate on such lives as his. A pure heart.

    Coincidentally (providentially) my grandson’s name is also Gabriel.

    Such edifying words for the heart to include in my prayers. Thank you!

  30. I was struck by him too and felt a love for him similar to St Paisios and St Porphyrios. Today we’ll use his instruction to ask St Luke the blessed surgeon for some help with our sick friends

  31. I’ve thought a lot about the enemy’s exploitation of my lizard brain over the last couple years. He’s had a field day, I must admit.

    The Divine Liturgy (and other services of the Church) are practically the only refuge I find these days from the assaults that overwhelm. Spring of 2020 was nearly my demise. Participation in the sacramental life of the Church is where I gain my strength.

    Sunday morning before Liturgy because of a careless accident on my part, I got into a stupid altercation with my spouse that left me feeling emotionally bludgeoned by my spouse’s accusation and recrimination.
    The feelings were mutual. Having recognized the futility of attempting a resolution in a short time frame with inflamed passions on both sides, I left for Liturgy with a heavy heart knowing with the resentment and self-pity still seething there, I could not in good conscience approach the Mystery I so desperately needed for the healing of my soul, but I was determined to give myself over to the prayers nonetheless. (The enemy always gives himself away in the frequency of this kind of timing of his assaults.) My deep dejection over the sorry state of my soul was a silent prayer for help. I entered the Nave and went to venerate the Saints of North America with the most inarticulate of prayers in my heart for their help. No sooner had I made the sign of the Cross and as soon as my lips hit the Icon, I felt a release from the chains of resentment and a calm flood my soul with a quiet awareness of the love and long-suffering of our Savior. The same was reinforced at the Icons of our Lord and His Mother. How could I compare my own wounds to His, His Mother’s and His Saints’? How could I not forgive and forbear as He did, as they all did? I was so grateful for their kindness that so speedily granted me grace to forgive and commune. This is our Lord, who is wonderful in His Saints.

  32. I use the word beauty and beautiful frequently.
    Beauty in nature and my photography transforms fear and anxiety. I’m going to read St. John now. Thank you
    Anne p

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